As part of its “Harmony Charter,” Mondelez, the world’s largest snack company, buys wheat on contract from farmers who commit to using 50 advanced agricultural practices set out by the company, including setting aside 3% of their land for cultivation of plants known to attract bees and butterflies. The Harmony wheat accounts for 75% of the soft wheat used in the European biscuit brands of Mondelez.
The case for increasing bee and butterfly populations has the support of many in the scientific community as well as environmental advocacy organizations such as Greenpeace.
|Orley Taylor, professor of ecology and environmental biology at the University of Kansas.|
“I think a program like Mondelez is a good idea,” Orley Taylor, Ph.D., professor of ecology and environmental biology at the University of Kansas, to
ld World Grain. He said it makes sense to set aside areas of cropland, especially those that are underperforming in terms of conventional agriculture, and then cultivate special kinds of plants on that marginal land that attracts bees and butterflies.
He emphasized the importance of not just letting land go wild but making sure a diverse set of plants is available that especially attract bees and butterflies. He cautioned that it could take “centuries” for natural habitats coming back from being farmed to include specific varieties of vegetation needed to sustain strong populations of pollinators.
Taylor sounded the alarm bell that the task ahead in Europe, the United States and around the world to preserve pollinator populations was at risk of becoming an environmental crisis, where certain nuts, fruits and vegetables might not be pollinated sufficiently to have good crops because of a scarcity of bees and other insects.
“We don’t want to get to the point of some places in China where the degradation of the environment has been so bad that they have to hand-pollinate some of their crops,” he said. “That’s crazy.”
While providing plants to attract bees and butterflies isn’t all that may be needed to rebuild their populations (pesticide exposure also has harmful effects on the insects and the Harmony program has a record of reducing pesticide usage below the average in France), Taylor said, it is clearly a key first step in rebuilding bee and butterfly populations.
“You’re not going to have the plants if you don’t have the pollinators first,” he said. “And you’re not going to have the pollinators if you don’t have the plants. They are totally interdependent.”
The Harmony initiative at Mondelez asks farmers to look a bit beyond their immediate self-interest by planting species known to attract bees and butterflies, even though wheat doesn’t require insects for pollination.
As Greenpeace noted in its “Bees in Decline” report from 2013, “Grains like wheat, rice and corn, which make up a large part of the global human diet, are mostly pollinated by wind and are not so much affected by insect pollinators. However, the most nutritious and interesting crops in our diet such as fruit and vegetables, and some fodder crops for meat and dairy production, would undoubtedly be affected badly by a decline in insect pollinators.”
A hit parade of edible varieties are dependent on insect pollination, ranging from almonds to okra to raspberries to kiwi fruit. And, in Europe, as well as other parts of the world, modern industrial agriculture has taken its toll on populations of pollinators that must fly flower to flower to do their jobs.
Since 1998, individual beekeepers in Europe have been reporting unusual weakening and mortality in colonies, particularly in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain, said the United Nations Environment Programme in 2011.
Mondelez may be unique among large corporations in trying to address butterfly and bee problems through its relationships with French wheat farmers. These growers produce a set amount of soft wheat each year that they sell through Harmony to Mondelez. These bushels are then milled and baked into brands mostly for the European market, such as Petit LU, Heudebert, Carcotte, Petit ecolier, Prince, Paille d’or, LULU l’Ourson (Barni), Granola, belvita, Mikado, Napolitain, Tuc and Fontaneda, the company said.
Farmers who participate in the Harmony initiative but exceed their yearly target production have the option of selling their extra wheat to cooperatives in their region or inventory the supply for sale the following crop year. They also are required by Harmony to use specific varieties of flowers and plants that benefit bees and butterflies, and these may differ by geographic region.
Mondelez’s Harmony initiative has taken years expanding its roots, starting in 2007, when 200 company volunteers involved with the LU biscuit brand were asked to imagine projects to “inspire and create purpose and meaning for our employees, stakeholders and consumers,” the company said.
“Wheat is the main ingredient in our biscuit, so we created a better wheat culture for our biscuits, the Harmony charter,” Mondelez said. The charter includes guidance on issues such as wheat variety selection, soil rotation, farmers’ safety, traceability, biodiversity and pesticides. Farmers — selected by cooperatives to be as close as possible to Mondelez biscuit manufacturing facilities — sign up to the charter, which is renewed and improved every year.
By 2015, Mondelez had 2,269 farmer partners in Western Europe, a number that is allowed to vary according to the volume needs for wheat used to make biscuits. That was the year the company reached an important marker: 75% of its Western European products by volume was being made with wheat enrolled in the Harmony program. Harmony also has expanded to work on meeting other environmental goals as well.
“As we develop the program we are building tools to track and reduce environmental impact, focusing on water and our greenhouse gas footprint,” Mondelez said.
The year 2015 was also when Harmony won the French LSA Sustainable Trophy for Environmental Responsibility, awarded to retailers and industries. The prize rewarded the Harmony program’s goal, its progressive approach and its importance in addressing environmental issues, the company said.
In the summer of 2015, “we counted more than 14 million bees and 32 butterfly species that have been able to feed on 1,151 hectares of melliferous crops” that promote the production of honey, Mondelez said.
Sourcing Harmony wheat on a growing scale has required Mondelez to make some careful choices. The company decided that attempting to source organic wheat wasn’t feasible. So the emphasis has been kept on other sustainable agricultural practices.
“Wheat farming is not our core competency,” the company said. “At the end of the day, we’re a biscuit maker. It’s what we do, and we do it well. We knew we needed other partners to join us in this journey to sustainably source our wheat. This includes the farmers, miller and other key players across the value chain. Along the way, the Harmony program has challenged us to better anticipate risks — for example, securing our flour supply two years in advance.”
The apparent success of Harmony leads to the question of whether a similar program could become viable for Mondelez in the United States, where the structure of agriculture is more individualistic, more competitive and offers less of an opportunity for groups of farmers to bond together on a project.
Taylor at the University of Kansas sees hopeful possibilities in the development of laser technology that helps U.S. farmers identify parts of their land where they are not making back their investments in seeds and other inputs. In certain areas, “the margins are quite thin and they can be basically losing money,” he noted. As a result, producers would eventually make the decision to take that marginal land out of production.
“It won’t be a required thing, it will be a common-sense decision,” he said.
The jump from not using poor land for agricultural crops to perhaps planting it for the benefit of pollinators is not such a big one, Taylor indicated, although the change would be expected to be gradual and long term. He said producers could provide small “islands” where appropriate plants could grow that would nurture bees and perhaps function as essential way stations for migratory insects in North America, such as the Monarch butterfly.
Meanwhile, Mondelez set up a special wheat program in the United States starting in 2014, but it differs significantly from Harmony in that it doesn’t target pollinator repopulation as a top priority. In a partnership with Michigan State University and a large U.S. cooperative, Mondelez put its imprimatur on a collaborative wheat sustainability pilot program. The initiative takes note of the fact that U.S. farmers often track data and results year to year, but are not accustomed to sharing their insights with each other.
The program, though, encourages information sharing among Michigan soft-wheat farmers. Mondelez said, “farmers record data and submit this to their cooperative, where the information is analyzed by an expert at Michigan State University.” Producers then see the results both on an individual basis and as a group in order to see how well they performed and where improvements could be made.
“Our North American Wheat Program in Michigan helps us and the farmers to identify trends in performance and improvements that can be leveraged by farmers in the region,” Mondelez said. The information then is analyzed to find out the actual greenhouse gas and water footprints incurred during production.
Indications are that farmers involved in the program are outperforming the regional average when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases and use of water. A similar program is being conducted by an organization known as Field to Market, which has several dozen members, including large packaged foods companies.